| November 24, 2003

French director (and actor) Mathieu Kassovitz arrived on the international film scene by winning the Best Director prize at Cannes in 1995 for his film, La Haine (Hate), and seemed that rare mix of talent and content (having something important to say). Like many intriguing directors from other countries, he has been courted by Hollywood. Gothika is the result. In light of most of the other international directors who’ve gone Hollywood before him, why anyone would be surprised that the film is a mess is beyond me.
Gone is any effort to say something meaningful as Gothika retreads premises from not just The Eye (a Japanese film released in the USA earlier this year), but The Sixth Sense (“I see dead people”), The Exorcist and, in the biggest stretch, The Cell. Gothika has enough atmosphere and paranoia and dream sequences to be of the caliber of Rosemary’s Baby, but the huge gaps in logic make it nothing more than a poorly designed story with better than average jolts placed often enough to make you jump out of your seat, even as you kick yourself for succumbing to the stock and trade of horror films.
Let’s ignore the moral implications of the tale (which seem unintentional since they rise out of one of the film’s more major logic gaps). Let’s accept that murder is murder is murder is murder, except — (I’ll leave that thought incomplete for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet, and just so you know, it’s not what my silence might imply, because the murder victim is human).
In stark contrast to a film like The Ring, which seems to be one of the more thought-out horror scenarios, Gothika does not even try to tell a coherent story as much as find ways to scare the audience. In a way, it’s an assembly of scary parts, many of which we’ve seen before, effective enough on their own, but none of which quite add up. For example, just who (or what) is the apparition — a victim? The devil? The apparition’s motives become jumbled and confused and inconsistent from scene to scene as the story winds around to simply shock rather than follow logical extensions of its initial premise.
Despite a fair degree of predictability as the film nears its wrap-up, the first half lays out an intriguing paranoia, and Halle Berry shines in her first real leading role since winning the Oscar. She just isn’t given enough room in the script by Sebastian Gutierrez to really explore her character’s inner turmoil. Berry’s character has been accused of murdering her husband; a murder she doesn’t remember committing. In fact, it’s implied that she’s no longer sure if any of her memories are real or dream — the scene where she asks a colleague if they had had an affair is powerful but glossed over too quickly as the only example of this doubt. Too bad, because this was one of the more intriguing concepts in the film — what if you couldn’t trust any of your memories? And what if people told you that you had done horrific things you couldn’t remember?
Somewhere in here is a potent psychological study that could have scared us and made us think and led to a film that would have become a classic. Instead, we get lots of flickering light, people running through hallways and rainy thunder storms — and that’s before the real cliches start piling up in the second half, causing the film to lose any real power it had.
With all of this said, if you’re willing to forego any real logic in the events, Gothika is a film that provides some tense moments and works best when it’s creating dread rather than horror. Besides Berry, there are several well-known names among the cast, including Charles S. Dutton, Robert Downey Jr. and Penelope Cruz. It’s a pity none of them are really given much to do.
Ultimately, the film’s title tells us everything — Gothika is all about look and atmosphere and style. Nothing particularly relevant or even coherent in hindsight. No real substance. So it only scares you while you’re in the theater, not after you leave.
And that’s the problem — it’s the film that scares you after you leave the theater, that scares you the more you think about it, that makes a classic horror film. Gothika is not that film.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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